Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Big Data, gold nuggets and the email abyss

Gold on Wikipedia
Big Data is a big buzz in the software world. It is an attempt to create small nuggets of gold from a steaming mass of information. It is not a product or a theory, more a collection of tools and platforms for organizing, analyzing and visualizing masses of data in new ways. This isn't a post on which vendor has the best visualization, the best data management, or whatever. It just provides a quick glimpse into what Big Data is, and how one of its biggest failings is common to small businesses as much as the huge research establishments that coined the term.

Big Data has sprung out of the desire for corporations to gain more meaning from all the data they collect every minute of every day. The information they are collecting about customers, about activities people perform, what they buy and the decisions they make. It is based on techniques grown in scientific research such as the Large Hadron Collider (that enormous “atom smasher”), that attempts to make the results of its 150 million sensors producing millions of sets of data every second into something that mere humans geniuses can understand. It provides medical research with a ways to make the human genome project into something more than a big experiment, developing drugs to address real diseases. And of course, government, with ways to meaningfully understand the requirements, trends (and tax evasion) of tens of millions of citizens.

Big Data is one big funnel, with megatons of data flowing in the top, and ounces of precious observation dripping out the bottom. And just like any organization, dealing with any insight, issue or lead it is at this point the Big Data analysis organization falls over and resorts to... email. All that effort in understanding an aspect of client behavior, drug interactions, or financial transactions takes real human effort. The care taken with a valuable result it is to dump it into a large abyss of junk mail and Facebook notifications.

Large corporations, governments and small businesses are all alike; everybody suffers from the same issue. They spend a lot of time working on problems, finding leads, understanding clients, but have no way of really organizing the useful information into something meaningful, to ensure that the value in the data doesn't get lost. That the potential new customer doesn't just forget she asked for information on your website. That your biggest client doesn't get upset at poor customer service and Tweet #fail about it to the world. That the analysis of your customer’s spending patterns doesn’t just leak out the bottom of a busy executive’s iPhone messages.

Sometimes email is good enough, but often we all need just a little more organization of information, a defined business process to follow and some simple management of who gets to see what, when. This combination of workflow and simple tools is all that is needed to prevent your own Big Data gold nuggets disappearing into the email abyss.

Follow more of my information management, Big Data and process rants: @consected on Twitter. Or ask me about how to prevent the precious information in your business leaking away.

A post from the Improving It blog
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Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Methodology does not trump human nature

Methodology. An ugly word. When used alongside business process improvement, 'methodology' suggests that there is a logical approach, a preordained series of steps, a pretentious way of saying there is a method to fixing business process problems. Like a workflow for fixing your workflows. At a high level, I’ll concede that this may be reasonable, but get much deeper than “analyze, measure, improve, rinse and repeat” and the methodology is just a hack of a bunch of experience and skills (I hear the Six Sigma guys beating at my door already). A methodology when used without care can blatantly ignore human nature, organizational behavior, and sheer common sense. I prefer my methodology to be more a constructive generic framework.

Things get even worse when the eventual goal is a strictly defined, no nonsense Business Process Model and Notation (BPMN) map of the process. Any graphical notation for drawing ‘workflows’ that requires a 538 page PDF specification probably needs the support of an equivalently strict methodology so its developers don’t stray off too far from some form of best practice in drawing their pretty workflow diagram.

As we all know, there are many ways to actually handle the implementation of business process improvement projects:

  • a business process management (BPM) tool to implement the workflow
  • a suite of tools to draw, develop and analyze the processes
  • a bunch of offshore software developers to produce some vaguely usable services for end-users
  • some common sense guidelines for workers to help them guide the process better themselves
  • any combination of the above

The reality of many successful business process improvement projects, independent of the implementation approach, is that the more methodology you try and stuff into the analysis and development of the ‘solution’ to your problems, the less room there is to maneuver when it comes to the actual reality of business processes: human nature and company politics trumps everything.

My proven approach (call it a methodology if you must) to business process improvement projects, (whether they depend on software development, business process management (BPM) tools, or plain simple task lists) is simple:

flexibility, iteration and communication

I unfortunately haven’t had the pleasure of re-engineering a process of 15,000 people, which likely requires some significant structure to making it all work. My experience is more for the 15 to 150 people processes, and to do them well often requires less methodology and more flexibility.

Think I'm completely wrong? Follow @consected on twitter and tell me!

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Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Focus on focus. Focus on customers.

With all the tweets and posts about 2012 highlights and 2013 predictions out of the way, I’m going to miss headlines like "Mayan’s preferred Microsoft", "Android buys iPhone" and "Big Data eats Samsung CIO at Las Vegas CES". But a heavy dose of reality (two weeks in, how am I going to make the next 50 really count?) has helped me focus on my focus - what does my company, and therefore what do I, do best?

Focus on the customer is the mantra of many of companies. Knowing your customer should be more than knowing where to send the bill. It includes organizing and making available information (not just data) of all types, to the right people, at the right time. What information?

  • what are the customer’s business problems?
  • why did they pick your service, solution or product?
  • would they recommend you?
  • what are their current issues or concerns with your product?
  • when did they last call for support or help?
  • what marketing communications do they receive and respond to?
  • how are they connected to your other customers?
  • are they interested in other products you have?
  • where do we send the bill (and does it get paid on time)?

Customer focus is an information problem for sure. It is also a process problem. The problem is preventing the day-to-day, week-to-week issues from getting in the way of a great customer experience. Put simply, it requires the back-office operations staying nicely hidden in the back-office, not leading your customer to fret about how disorganized you are and having to deal with unnecessary issues. Simply put:

  • are your bills sent on time, for the correct products, to the right place?
  • is there an easy process for changing changing details?
  • can customer support issues be easily tracked?
  • are renewals and updates handled automatically?

Customer focus requires giving employees the power to service customers well. Your systems must support employees with all the information they need to make good decisions, and taking some of the load off them by automating some of the repetitive things that nobody really wants to do. Put this into a package and call it Customer Relationship Management or Case Management if you need a software industry term for it.

Recognizing how to change processes, information and technology is something that is hard to do when you and your employees are stuck in the middle of doing their jobs. An independent, outside-in view is often needed to recognize opportunities to work better and improve customer focus.

Follow me on twitter @consected and Google+ for updates on process, information and technology.

A post from the Improving It blog
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Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Mobile and tablet technology is more than a distration

If you are new to this blog, welcome! If you have been following for a while, let me apologize right away for the break since the previous post. Over the last few months I have been focusing on the direction of Consected, to continue to serve our customers well, and to attract new opportunities. So you could say that my creative juices have been directed elsewhere. What does this mean for you, the blog reader? Hopefully, it means that you’ll be seeing more fresh and interesting posts from me on a regular basis.

Over the last couple of years, technology, both consumer and business, has been absorbed in the explosive mobile technology space. Consected and this blog have been following closely from as soon as the iPhone really started to impact the way we thought about the lump of plastic we wedge against our ears and shout at. The desperate catch-up scramble from Android devices led to some messy (and ongoing) patent disputes that resulted in interesting competition. Then the iPad hit the streets. The Netbook revolution that never really happened got swamped. Everybody wanted a slab of supercomputing plastic and glass. Consumers led businesses into what many would identify as the Star Trek tech era. After all, why would you want to lug around a monster laptop, with a charger and battery that weigh more than a large house brick, when you could enjoy having a slim, light tactile device in your hands at any time?

Businesses are still struggling with the idea of employees buying their own devices that trump the work PC, which they want to attach to the corporate network. The ‘bring your own device’ (often referred to as BYOD) struggle continues. As does the love-hate relationship with social media.

Consected and therefore this blog has been following all this, for the sheer novelty of it all, and because we know there is a real business (and technology and social) impact. For me, the mobile / tablet revolution has opened my eyes to several things:

  1. The apps we have been using on desktop PCs are clumsy, overloaded, and frankly ugly. Users are demonstrating that they can do more with less on-screen clutter, fewer menus, and a UI you jab with a finger rather than carefully align with a tiny mouse pointer.
  2. Business processes, those back office operations that make everything tick (or often grind) by day-by-day, need fresh thinking to accept that not only do our customers want to communicate with us everywhere, but so do our employees.
  3. It has become really hard to operate without an always-on Internet connection, since ‘the Cloud’ is king. Everywhere. Anytime. On the train, in the car, in the office, at home, at a bar. Handling that offline time is where our devices (and our sanity) are failing.

So my focus for this blog, and Consected the company, is to really start addressing these things holistically. We have a lot of experience with mobile web technology now. Consected has some great mobile products to help others with that experience. The aim for all of us is to start pulling mobile technology, the use anywhere / use easily devices and apps, back into the business processes that are the life-blood of larger companies and organizations. From the point where we start to meet new potential customers (our leads), through to when we are serving them well and eventually dealing with issues that arise, online and offline devices matter. Facilitating employees to do their jobs better and more easily, and to remove (or at least hide) some of that annoying administrative stuff that detracts from everybody working well and being profitable.

That’s my round up of where me, Consected and this blog have been, and a little of where we are going. Our big exploration into the mobile space is part of a bigger-picture, and I hope it really is a great opportunity for everybody to work better.

A post from the Improving It blog
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